Montclair Orchestra fetes Walker, plays world-class Mozart

Mon Mar 11, 2019 at 11:00 am
David Chan conducted the Montclair Orchestra Sunday afternoon.

David Chan conducted the Montclair Orchestra Sunday afternoon.

It’s been in existence just a year and a half. Its ranks include some members of top orchestras, but also students and local amateurs. The Montclair Orchestra shouldn’t be that good.

Sunday afternoon, performing music by Olli Mustonen, George Walker and Mozart under the direction of David Chan in Montclair’s Central Presbyterian Church, the Montclair Orchestra was that good.

This New Jersey suburb, population 38,000, has long boasted a world-class art museum. Now it can add an orchestra capable of playing in the big leagues, as evidenced by one of the most superb performances of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor this reviewer has ever heard.

The Montclair ensemble was conceived two years ago as a developmental orchestra, pairing promising students from Rutgers or Montclair State with top-drawer musicians who live in and around Montclair (and who suffer the Lincoln Tunnel every night on their way to work). Local players would give the group a community base.

David Chan, longtime concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, answered the orchestra’s ad for a conductor, et voilà—a crazy-quilt band with a rookie leader.

But a funny thing happened to this orchestra on its way to suburban obscurity. Sunday afternoon found the group playing with pinpoint coordination, mature musical insight, and irresistible esprit that would be the envy of many a big-city symphony.

Maybe it was a matter of the pros showing how it’s done, and the students and the amateurs upping their games to match them. Maybe it was the caliber of the young musicians who started showing up at auditions after word of the project reached New York’s fabled conservatories.

Major credit clearly went to conductor Chan, who must be some kind of natural at this. His long experience as a player-leader also likely enabled him to understand what the players needed—be it room to run, or a firm hand on the tiller—and give it to them.

In any case, it sounded like a kinder, gentler Toscanini was running the show, with rock-steady tempos that assured continuity, while phrasing, inflection, and tone color gave each theme and incident its own character.

If the big news on Sunday was the sudden appearance of an outstanding new orchestra in our midst, the event itself was calling attention to something else: the life and career of the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Walker, a longtime Montclair resident, who died last year at age 96.

With the overall title “Lyric,” the program included words of tribute to the late composer by his son, the composer and violinist Gregory Walker; a delegation from his alma mater the Oberlin Conservatory of Music; and a performance of his best-known piece, Lyric for Strings.

Like his contemporaries Don Shirley (of Green Book fame) and Nina Simone, the senior Walker was an accomplished African-American classical pianist whose career was thwarted in the 1950s by racial prejudice. Instead of detouring into jazz as those two did, Walker persevered in the classical field as a composer and professor, and was awarded the Pulitzer in 1996 for Lilacs, a setting of Walt Whitman’s poem on the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Walker’s Lyric (originally titled Lament) and Barber’s even-more-famous Adagio had similar origins: both composers studied composition at Curtis with Rosario Scalero, who encouraged both of them to arrange the slow movements of their first string quartets for string orchestra, resulting in their most celebrated orchestral pieces.

The 19-year-old Walker composed Lyric in memory of his late mother. Like the Barber, his piece climbed in scale-like figures to an intense, high pitch. But Walker brought the music crashing to earth with deep, anguished chords, then tapered it to an inconsolable pianissimo. In Chan’s and the orchestra’s reading, a warm Elgarian mix of passion and dignity set Walker’s mood apart from Barber’s more austere expression.

The concert opened with another piece in retrospective style by a pianist-composer, Olli Mustonen’s Nonet II for two string quartets and double bass, composed in 2000 but with a mid-century flavor akin to Britten or Lennox Berkeley. Chan and the ensemble vividly projected the character of each movement: long lines over nervous staccato chords in the first, cheerful skipping rhythms in the second, a hypnotic Adagio with Coplandesque and Renaissance elements, and a furious perpetual-tremolo finale à la Sibelius.

Innhyuck Cho, the newly-appointed principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, was the able soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. In the first movement Cho tended to rush the fast passages and shorten the long notes, but by the perky finale he had gotten with Chan’s steady-tempo program, with delightful results. A very slow tempo in the Adagio showcased Cho’s creamy tone and impressive breath control, but weighed the music down a bit.

From the first rustle of strings to the crushing final chords, Mozart’s G minor Symphony was a marvel of musical insight and communication. The smallish ensemble—just 29 string players total, plus double winds and horns—sounded full yet transparent in the roomy colonial-style church, its various balances and blends tended with care. The strings were rich in character, slashing one moment and sighing the next, and the dialogue crackled between them and the winds.

This performance had, in effect, two minuets, with the Andante moving along in a lilting three-to-a-bar before the official Menuetto crashed the party in its heavy boots. And in the finale, no matter how edgy the first theme or swoony the second, an inexorable tempo swept all down to the fierce conclusion.

As befits a community event, families with small children were well represented in the pews. The orchestra’s avowed strategy calls for programs of old and recent music that appeal to new listeners, young and old, without talking down to them. The kids who heard Sunday’s performance of Mozart’s G minor may spend a lifetime looking for a better one.

The Montclair Orchestra conducted by David Chan with baritone Yunpeng Wang will perform works of Haydn, Berlioz and Bizet 7 p.m. April 28 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 73 S. Fullerton Avenue, Montclair, NJ.; 973-435-2906.

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